What causes tight calves?
Muscle tightness in the calves during a run or after you finish is incredibly common and can impact even the most seasoned runners. But in order to treat tight calves, you first need to identify what is causing it to happen.
Calf pain after an injury, such as a strain, is to be expected. But runners often complain of calf pain or tightness with no history of trauma.
Non-traumatic calf pain and usually follows a fairly predictable pattern. At some point during the run, the calf begins to feel tight, as you continue the tightness, and in some cases, pain. After you stop running the pain will subside but the muscle will continue to feel firm and a bit tender as well as a “pulling sensation” when you flex your foot or point the toes.
In this article we are going to discover what causes tight calves.
Overloading the calf
The number one reason for is a sudden increase in the duration or intensity of your running. If the body is unable to adapt to the demands of training then the muscles will quickly become fatigued. This will alter the mechanics of the foot and your gait pattern when running.
The main reasons for calf tightness;
- If you are new to running or getting back into training after a period of rest.
- Introducing hill or speed work.
- Increasing weekly mileage and increasing training intensity.
- Introducing gym sessions (on the same day or day before running).
- Returning from injury.
If you are taking up running or returning from a period of rest it is important to follow a well-structured training program. This will make sure that you are getting the right balance of training and recovery so you can train consistently and to a high level. When you build up your training correctly this will also prevent any muscle imbalances.
We have created a free 10-week training program that you can access here.
Hill running and sprint training force you into more of a forefoot running pattern. Running on the balls of the feet will put increased demand on the calves. Even the most experienced runners will be able to recall a time they have been on the side of a hill trail trying to elevate tight calves.
If you run regularly you will be used to running on tired and heavy legs. But there is a cumulative effect of increasing the miles that you do and you may not notice how fatigued your muscles are getting. Calf tightness normally occurs because you have a goal in mind, an event or personal target, so you overlook the signs. You may view heavy legs or DOMS as an indication you are progressing. But starting fatigued can result in injury if not managed correctly.
Balanced training is important. However, if gym training is relatively new to you or you have started running on the same day, or the day after, a strength session in the gym, the calf will be fatigued.
If you are returning from a calf injury then you will likely experience some calf tightness when running. This could be from muscle tissue that has healed after a tear or due to a strength imbalance after a period of rest.
If you are returning from an injury then download the free 12-week program that will take you from day one right through to return to running. Following this program will greatly reduce risk or reinjury and reduce calf tightness.
Can footwear cause tight claves?
Calf tightness can be caused by your footwear. New shoes, old shoes or transitioning to different levels of support, all of these will have an impact on the mechanics of the foot and ankle, and increase the loading through the calf. Any of these can cause tight calves.
Experts advise changing your running shoes every 300 – 500 miles. So for someone who runs 20 miles a week your looking at changing them roughly every 6 months.
It’s also very common for people transitioning to a trainer with minimal cushioning to experience tight calves. Minimal and barefoot trainers involve landing on the ball of the foot. This forefoot running style loads the calf muscles and Achilles tendon more than heel strike running in cushioned shoes. It is important to note that it is important to have your gait analysed as everyone has an optimal running style.
How to treat tight claves
If you have any concerns we always advocate getting assessed by a medical professional. Other causes that may need further investigation;
- peripheral vascular disease (PVD) or peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
- deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- muscle tear or tendonitis injuries
- limited range of motion in your ankle
- dietary imbalances
- medication side effects
- poor circulation
About the author
Cameron is a former professional rugby player who broke his back in 2007. He is a qualified physiotherapist with two degrees in Sports Science and Physiotherapy. Before Riixo he worked for the UK national health service (NHS), in professional sport and the British army. Read about his story.
Long day’s journey into night By Frank Wainwright Ultrarunning is my freedom. The time it takes between start line to finish arch is my
Written By Frank Wainwright September 2020: I was in good shape as a limited number of events came out of hiding. I was in